Organizing in Mexico: A Unique Challenge


Last week I had one of the most unusual and challenging organizational projects ever. I am sharing this experience with you because the principles I learned hold true for any organizing task.  My husband Eric and I were in Cozumel, Mexico volunteering on the campus of Ciudad de Angeles (City of Angels), Ciudad de Angeles ( is a Christian children’s home that provides a permanent home for orphaned, abandoned, abused, and needy children in Mexico. Our family has been involved with Ciudad for about 13 years, and we visit yearly to spend time with the child we sponsor and to help with improvements to the campus. Our “Mexican daughter” isn’t a child anymore; she’s actually now 20 years old and a student at the local university.

As the team of volunteers was gathering materials for the various projects that needed to be completed, the team leader approached me and said, “I heard you were an organizer. We’ve got a job that’s perfect for you!” I love organizing so much and was excited for a chance to use my skills there. The building that needed work was a small storage area for construction materials. As is often the case, because it is used by many different people and no one is in charge of maintaining it, it was in quite a state of disarray. The shelves and floor were almost totally covered with various supplies, but there appeared to be no order to where things were placed. There was also quite a bit of trash and empty containers scattered around. More materials needed to be brought into the space, but doing so in the current state would only make matters worse. The goal was to remove anything not worthy of saving and to put the remaining contents into order so that materials could be found easily. This solution would save the home both time and money.

There were several things about this project that made it considerably different from other organizing projects. First of all, usually when I begin a project, I spend a lot of time speaking to the primary user of the space to find out about their goals and preferences. Although most of the staff at Ciudad speaks both English and Spanish, the construction workers spoke only Spanish. As the primary users, they would be the most important ones to ask about how items should be arranged, but since I speak very little Spanish, I wasn’t able to have that crucial conversation with them. With multiple projects going on at the campus, there wasn’t time to enlist someone’s help to translate, so I just had to arrange things in the way I thought best. I had several “angels” (a few older children who live at the home who just happened to be on a break from school) to help me, and their English was good overall, but it did create an additional challenge. Secondly, funds are limited at the home, so I wouldn’t be able to buy any new organizing supplies. I would need to limit my choices to what I had available to me. The third difficulty was that I wouldn’t be able to label the shelves or containers after I finished because I didn’t know the Spanish term for the objects.

My helpers and I got started immediately by removing any obvious trash and unusable items from the building. This part of the process took the longest since there was so much that needed to be removed. I had to occasionally check with a Ciudad staff member to ask whether an item was valuable enough to save. After everything that didn’t belong in the storage building was removed. Then we pulled everything out of the building and swept off the shelves and then the floor.   

As we pulled items out, we started grouping them into categories. Sorting, the process of arranging like with like, is always my favorite part of the organizing process. Even with the language difficulty, the angels were excellent with this task. I was very thankful that my husband Eric was able to join me on the second day of the project. He has much more knowledge about building materials than I do, so he was able to help with the decision about whether something needed to be saved as well as with the sorting process. Once we had everything sorted, we started making decisions about how to arrange everything. We wanted to keep heavier materials (like buckets of paint and large tiles) on the floor of the building under the bottom shelf. Items that would be used regularly needed to be stored in an area that was easily accessible. We also wanted to keep as much of the floor clear as we could to allow space to work and for bringing in additional materials as needed.

Only at this point did we start thinking about whether we would need to use containers. We looked at each grouping of items to decide if it needed to be placed into a container. Since we couldn’t buy anything, we looked around to see what kind of containers we had available. Since painting and construction are constantly taking place at Ciudad, we had an abundance of empty 5 gallon buckets as well as a few random plastic containers. I usually like to use clear containers with lids for organizing because they allow you to see the contents and the container can easily be labeled. Eric had a great suggestion; we used 5 gallon buckets turned on their sides for a few items so that they could be corralled into one place but also be seen easily. Once everything had been arranged, we were able to bring in some additional supplies (wood scraps) that had been stacked nearby until the building was organized.

I was so pleased with the results that we took a few pictures. I was wishing I had taken “before” pictures so that you could see what a big difference we made. The Ciudad staff was thrilled with how much better the building looked. But the true test of whether an organizing project is successful isn’t based on how a space looks but whether or not it is functional. Toward the end of the process, a construction worker came into the building to look for some electrical wire, glanced at the shelves, and quickly found what he needed. I am not sure whether he would have been able to find it before, but I was encouraged by watching to see him find it easily now.  

When I reflected on this experience later in the day, I realized that there was much to be learned. Here are some of my thoughts:   

  • No matter what the situation or what type of items are involved, the basic steps of organizing are always the same: reduce, arrange, and maintain. First, remove anything that doesn’t belong in the space (reduce). Next, group the remaining items into like categories and determine the best order for them (arrange). Finally, figure out a plan for how the items can be kept in order in the future (maintain). I guess only time will tell as to whether the order will be maintained, but hopefully if we arranged it in a functional way, maintenance won’t be a difficult challenge.
  • If you’re on the fence about whether or not to keep an item, err on the side of purging. I am glad I was given permission to use this criteria. One of the biggest reasons that clutter develops is because we keep too many things “just in case”. But the “just in case” usually doesn’t happen, and we’re left with a huge amount of unneeded stuff that clutters our spaces. A good basic rule is to only keep something if there is strong evidence that it will be used for a specific purpose in the very near future. Make purging your default mode, and you will have much better long-term results. Be ruthless!
  • Wait until the very last step of the process to even think about what containers you might need. This is the opposite of what most people do. So often, people will decide to get organized and immediately go and buy a bunch of storage containers. Until you have removed what’s not needed and sorted items into categories, you have no idea what kind of organizing products you will need. Besides, most of the time, you already have everything you need for organizing. The 5 gallon buckets and plastic containers that were lying around in various areas of the campus weren’t the ideal solution, but they worked just fine. I find this to be true the vast majority of the time with clients here as well. Organizing doesn’t have to be expensive. You don’t have to buy specialty products. Common household containers such as shoe boxes and baskets can be used to group items.

I’m so glad I got an opportunity to organize in Mexico. I know I was also helpful with other projects I assisted in last week, like weeding a landscaping bed and shoveling gravel into wheelbarrows to be moved to other locations on the campus. But it’s always nice to find a place to use your skills and passion in a way that benefits others. I hope that the principles I learned during this job are helpful to you.

Happy organizing!


Homeless Clutter


When it comes to my job, helping people deal with the clutter in their homes is my bread and butter. Clutter is defined as a collection of things lying about in an untidy mass. Clutter can accumulate anywhere in a home, but what I encounter most often is cluttered surfaces in the common areas of the home like the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. Sometimes clutter piles up because we simply don’t take the time to put items back in their proper place. Taking a few extra seconds to return items to their home instead of placing them somewhere quickly easily solves that problem. But what if an item has never been assigned a proper location, or home? What do you do with it when you finish using it? More often than not, that item will end up on a kitchen counter, desk, coffee table, or some other surface. When that same outcome occurs frequently, before you know it, the surface is no longer visible or usable.

I heard the term “homeless clutter” on one of my favorite organizing podcasts recently ( Cassie Aarsen, professional organizer, author, and owner of ClutterBug in Ontario, Canada coined the term, and I think it’s a perfect name because it reminds me of the most fundamental principle of organization. Keeping your home organized is all about finding a suitable home for every item and keeping that item in its home. Although no two homes have exactly the same types of clutter, there are a few categories of clutter that frequently wind up as homeless. Cassie’s list of homeless clutter is pretty much spot on, so I am using her list but adding my comments and descriptions.

If the key to organizing is assigning a suitable home for each item, what constitutes a suitable home? And how do you decide where it should be? The best advice I can give is to ask yourself this simple question: If I were looking for this item, where is the first place I would look? If possible, put the item in that place. Ideally, the item should be kept close to the place where it is used. If multiple people in the home use the item, get input from everyone when choosing the home. Also keep in mind that each category of items should ideally have only one location, not multiple ones scattered all over the home.

Following is the list of items that frequently end up as homeless clutter, along with a description of where I keep them in my home and other sensible locations.

  • Keys
    • This is homeless clutter than can really wreak havoc. How many times have you or someone you know been running around in a panic, late for an important event and frustrated because you can’t find your keys?
    • My husband Eric keeps his in his pocket or on his bedside table. I keep mine in a particular pocket of my purse. Occasionally if I need to quickly run to my car, I’ll put them in my pocket temporarily, but I always try to put them right back in my purse when I return. Occasionally this doesn’t happen; see above note about this situation wreaking havoc.
    • Hanging keys on a hook by the door is also a pretty good solution.
    • I have some friends who share keys to a car for some reason instead of each person having their own key. I have never thought this was a good idea, because invariably there will be some situation where someone needs a key but the other person has it. See above note about havoc. Get your own key, people. Seriously.
  • Purse
    • Not having an established home for your purse is pretty much just as serious as for the keys. I think almost every woman’s blood pressure goes up a notch just hearing the words, “Where is my purse?”, even if they are holding their own. And those words are almost always spoken with a fair amount of despair, and occasionally with tears.
    • I keep mine on the doorknob of the door closest to the stairs to the garage.
    • I definitely think the best home for your purse should be close to the kitchen and living room so that you can get to it quickly. Women generally need to put something into or get something out of their purses about 27 times a day, give or take.
  • Pens//scissors/tape/other frequently used office supplies
    • Mine are in various locations on the main level of the house. This is probably not ideal, but it works. I don’t have a “junk drawer”, as I feel this would be unbecoming to a professional organizer.
    • It’s not necessarily illegal to have a junk drawer. If you did choose to have a junk drawer and you can keep it semi-organized, these items would probably belong in it. They probably need to be in the common areas of your house. If you have an office, some will most likely need to be kept there as well.
  • Items to be repaired/returned to someone/etc.
    • This category is for anything that needs to go out the door for any reason. It ends up as homeless clutter because we are afraid that if we don’t leave it out somewhere we can see it, we’ll forget to take it with us. And if we go ahead and put it in the car, we might drive around with it for months but never get it to its destination.
    • I keep mine on the floor under my purse that’s hanging on the doorknob. The idea is that I will see it when I get my purse and immediately pick it up and take it with me the next time I leave my house. This plan usually works.
    • Eric keeps his on the kitchen island, which is close to the stairs leading to the garage. The problem with this is that I am obsessed with keeping the kitchen island cleared and wiped off. This means I will move the item(s) multiple times until it is removed. Yes, I realize that I am a bit obsessive.
    • The best home is probably close to the door closest to your car. Some type of surface is probably better than the floor. Putting the item into the car is also a good choice, but you may need some sort of reminder to actually take it to the appropriate place.
  • Mail and other active paper
    • By active paper, I am referring to any paper that requires action (bills, forms to fill out, receipts, party invitations, etc.), not the kind of paper that needs to be stored long-term (like a birth certificate, old tax information, etc.).
    • Our active papers end up on the kitchen island temporarily until they have been put into their proper location. If the paper doesn’t need to be dealt with quickly, I have a basket on the kitchen counter that I put it in until I get around to dealing with it properly, which will always be less than a week.
    • Figuring out a system for dealing with paper is critical for preventing clutter and for managing a household. I highly recommend a system called The Sunday Basket, the brainchild of Cincinnati organizer Lisa Woodruff (
  • Items to be recycled (paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, etc.)
    • We have a small trash can in the floor of my pantry for ours. When this container fills up, we take it downstairs to put in the recycling bin.
    • If the recycling bin is on a different level than the kitchen, a stair basket might be another good option.
  • Loose change
    • I keep mine in my billfold in my purse and just try to get rid of loose coins as I can to prevent them from building up. I have never gotten into the habit of collecting them like many people do.
    • If you keep them in a container of some sort, my only suggestion is to occasionally go and cash them in unless you are saving them for a particular reason.
    • When I help people organize, we often find loose coins in virtually every room of the house. I am always surprised by how many locations it shows up in.
  • Lost socks
    • I keep mine in the drawer where the rest of my socks are, and I keep them there for a little while until I have given up hope of the mate reappearing. Then I eventually assume that the mate has gone to that unknown land where all lost socks go.
    • A container in the laundry room for lost socks isn’t a bad idea. But at some point if it gets too full, the odds that you will actually take the time to search through it when you find another random sock get pretty slim.
  • Business cards
    • I keep mine in the back of the container where I keep my own business cards. Every few days I get them out and enter them into the free app CamCard. With a quick picture, CamCard pulls the information from the card and saves the image.
    • I highly recommend that you figure out a system for organizing these. They pile up quickly, and you’re likely to forget why you even got the card in the first place.

I really could go on and on with this topic. Other items I could have included are batteries, charging cords, small tools, sunglasses, lip balm, first aid products, and medication.

Look around at your common areas. Are there lots of items scattered around on the surfaces? Do you have a disorganized junk drawer or two? Take the time to assign a home for each of them. Dealing with your homeless clutter can really make a big difference in your home.